Skip to content

The Trouble With the Steele Dossier

Nine months ago today, a salacious report appeared that alleged close ties between the Kremlin and President-elect Donald J. Trump, thereby upending American politics. Published by BuzzFeed, the so-called Steele dossier ignited a firestorm with its assertions that Russian intelligence had quietly boosted the president-elect for years, and possessed embarrassing personal and financial information on the man about to enter the White House.

That Moscow has such compromising material, what the Russians term kompromat, on Trump led to awkward questions that the still-forming White House brushed away with counterclaims that the entire dossier is fake, a put-up job. The president termed the detailed, 35-page dossier a “hoax,” “totally made-up stuff,” and dismissed it altogether as just more “fake news,” to cite Trump’s favorite phrase.

The matter has taken on renewed urgency with reports that the Steele dossier is being closely examined by Special Counsel Robert Muller, including dispatching investigators to Britain to interview Christopher Steele, the dossier’s complier. A security consultant and former officer of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as MI6) with considerable experience in Russian matters, Steele presumably had a lot to say.

Mueller’s investigators want to know more about the dossier’s background, about which there remain questions – even though the essential outline of how it came to be is already clear. Steele’s dossier is something rarely seen by the public: a raw, unfiltered human intelligence assessment. This is the sort of thing Steele compiled during his MI6 service, so it’s no surprise that he repeated the exercise when he examined Trump’s Kremlin connections.

However, such raw HUMINT reports are unfamiliar to the public, which focused on Steele’s salacious, indeed porn-worthy allegations, more than the substance of alleged collusion between President Trump and Moscow. The dossier, being unfiltered intelligence, some of it derived from second-hand sources in Russia, is best considered lead information only, that is, a jumping-off point for additional investigation – not the final word on anything. As a stand-alone report, its uses are limited for any seasoned intelligence analyst.

Not to mention that there have always been good reasons to doubt some of Steele’s revelations. While the dossier’s depiction of Kremlin politics – what spies call “atmospherics” – are undeniably true, many of the specifics are unverifiable. When the dossier appeared in January, veteran Kremlin-watcher David Satter observed that the whole exercise reeked of a Russian provocation, making a case that’s plausible to those who understand Chekists.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Reports Reveal Sorry State of Security at the National InSecurity Agency

The National Security Agency’s unending tale of counterintelligence woe has gotten even worse, based on reports in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times this week, which reveal yet another truly shocking penetration of our country’s most important intelligence agency.

According to these reports, an NSA affiliate in early 2016 took highly classified information home – a gross violation of a raft of security rules and regulations – and placed it on a home computer, where they were stolen by hackers connected to the Russian government.  This information was compromised thanks to this individual’s use of Kaspersky anti-virus software, although the precise role the software played here is under debate.

What’s not up for debate is the enormous intelligence loss this compromise represents, since what was purloined included above-top-secret information on how NSA penetrates foreign computer networks, as well as how the Agency protects American government systems from foreigners doing the same to us.

The Kremlin’s interest in NSA is intense and perennial, for reasons I’ve explained before:

It would be difficult to overstate Moscow’s interest in how the Five Eyes countries encrypt their sensitive government communications. During the Cold War, the KGB referred to NSA as Target OMEGA, and for the Kremlin there was no higher-priority espionage target on earth. That’s because by penetrating NSA you get access not just to that agency’s signals intelligence, the richest espionage source on earth, you can also crack into the top secret communications of the United States and its closest allies.

NSA’s security failures in recent years defy belief and raise awkward questions about whether the Agency and its counterintelligence structures can be reformed at all. First, we had the global media sensation created by the defection of Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, to Moscow in June 2013. Snowden made off with some 1.5 million secret documents, many of them highly classified, which compromised literally thousands of NSA projects and programs.

Then, in August 2016, another NSA contactor was arrested for removing terabytes of highly classified information from his Agency office. Harold Thomas Martin III was not a mole, since there’s no evidence that he passed any secret files to a foreign intelligence service, yet his crime revealed yet again the sorry state of security at NSA. That said, the Martin case remains mysterious, and it’s quite a coincidence that his arrest came in the same month that the “Shadow Brokers” – in reality a front for Russian intelligence – dumped a trove of highly classified NSA hacking tools on the internet.

Read the rest at The Observer …

False Flag Terrorism: Myth and Reality

Sunday night’s appalling atrocity in Las Vegas, where an apparently lone gunman holed up in the Mandalay Bay hotel shot more than 500 people – killing 59 of them at present count – has taken over the airwaves and social media. Rightly so, since this is the deadliest mass shooting incident in recent American history.

Questions abound regarding Stephen Paddock, the shooter, who’s dead (reportedly by his own hand) and therefore unavailable to explain what motivated him to commit such an awful crime. It’s a rare thing for an affluent older white man – he was 64 and devoted to gambling in his retirement from accountancy – without a criminal record to assemble a vast arsenal, then unleash it on hundreds of people he’d never met.

It may be some time before a motive can be detected in this strange and sinister case. The claim of the Islamic State that Paddock was their “soldier” has been dismissed by U.S. intelligence as a desperate fantasy by the ailing terror group, eager to cash in on the Las Vegas horror. Indeed, we may never know exactly what propelled Paddock into this horrific act.

In the absence of reliable information, the usual charlatans have jumped into the fray, offering fact-free speculation. Per sordid custom, this ghoulish gang is led by Alex Jones, the InfoWars doyen, who proffered his customary insta-explanation for the crime: False Flag!

In other words, nothing in Las Vegas is as it seems. Jones offered a tale that was convoluted even for him: Paddock was merely a front for the “Deep State” in Washington, the Islamic State, and “the literal grandchildren of the folks that financed the Bolshevik Revolution out of New York and London” (translation: Jews).

This is his shtick, and Jones falls back on False Flags to explain nearly everything. He became notorious for employing it after the 2012 school horror in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, which left 20 little kids murdered. Egged on by his instance that the entire incident was a hoax, Jones’ demented fans have tortured grieving parents for years.

This vile spectacle has pushed the False Flag idea beyond the pale, which is unfortunate because they really do exist among spies and terrorists. Recruiting agents and conducting espionage operations while pretending to be somebody else happens every day in the real world. Terrorists, too, have been known to kill while masquerading as another party, for political effect.

Polite people don’t like to talk about this, of course, and their politesse has infected our discourse about such important matters, to its detriment. Now, thanks to Alex Jones, to mention False Flags in any way is to self-brand as a lunatic.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Dead Sing With Dirt in Their Mouths

Our nuclear stand-off with North Korea shows no signs of abating. On the contrary, every day or two, it seems to get worse – with no end, or off-ramps, in sight. President Trump says or tweets something aggressive and shocking just to taunt Pyongyang, to which North Korea responds in juvenile kind.

This bizarre spectacle, based on public trash-talk between nuclear powers, has become so commonplace that it seems almost normal. It is nothing of the kind. It’s not normal for our president to openly state that he will “totally destroy” North Korea – implying the nuclear annihilation of 25 million people – as he did before the United Nations last week.

Neither was it normal for Ri Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s top diplomat, to state that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric amounted to a “declaration of war” on his country, as he did at the beginning of this week, adding that North Korea reserves the right to shoot down American aircraft, even in international airspace.

Of course, such threats have something to do with the fact that our president amplified his UN saber-rattling with a tweet over the weekend in which he threatened Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong Un – whom he regularly refers to as “Rocket Man” – and his entourage with death: “they won’t be around much longer.” 

Pyongyang’s threats ought to be taken more seriously than Trump does. This, after all, is an intensely nationalist regime, little understood by outsiders, grounded in hatred, fear, and loathing of “imperialists” – especially the United States – and Donald J. Trump seems bent on proving 70 years of North Korean propaganda correct about what dangerous, irresponsible people American war-mongering capitalists are.

The Kim dynasty has a well-honed habit of doing things no other country on earth would dare do. Back in 2010, one of their submarines sank a South Korean warship, blowing it in half with a torpedo and killing 46 sailors. The idea that Pyongyang might shoot down U.S. warplanes is entirely plausible. Indeed, they’ve done it before, in April 1969, when a North Korean MiG-21 blasted an unarmed U.S. Navy EC-121 spy plane out of the sky, without warning, 90 miles off the North Korean coast, killing 31 Americans in the deadliest attack on one of our spy places in the whole Cold War.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Upstart AfD Shakes Up German Election–but It Has an Espionage Backstory

Germany went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new federal parliament – and a new national government – and the results stunned Europe and the world. Although center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel won a fourth term in office, since her party came out on top in the vote tallies, in truth the election stands as a stern rebuke of her and her party’s governance since 2005. For a politician widely considered the de facto leader of the European Union, and even hailed as the “leader of the free world” by some, including Hillary Clinton, this is a serious setback.

Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received one-third of the votes, 33 percent, far ahead of the second-place Social Democrats (SPD) with 20.6 percent, but for both parties this represented a big drop-off since the last elections. In 2013, the CDU and the SPD got 37 and 29 percent, respectively, and Sunday’s tallies are the lowest for both parties since the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949, out of the ashes of Nazism and the Second World War.

The big news here is the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Founded only four years ago, this new right-wing party barely competed in the 2013 election, garnering only 1.9 percent of the vote, but on Sunday the upstart AfD won 12.6 percent, which will give them 94 seats in the incoming parliament in Berlin, what Germans call the Bundestag. For the first time since 1990, a new party will be seated in the Bundestag, and it’s on the far-right. The AfD did especially well in economically lagging regions of the former East Germany, where 26 percent of men voted for the party.

Several other parties hovered around the 10-percent mark, including the libertarian-leaning Free Democrats (10.7), the former East German Communists rebranded as Die Linke (9.2), and the environmentalist Greens (8.9). As the chastened Social Democrats show no interest in a grand coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the only way the chancellor can form a government will be in coalition with some of these smaller parties. The likeliest outcome is the so-called “Jamaica” coalition from the colors of that country’s flag: black for the CDU, yellow for the Free Democrats, and green (obviously) for the Greens.

Merkel will keep the upstart AfD out of government at all costs, viewing them as pariahs and extremists. Ironically, this new rival is very much her own creation, inadvertently. Born out of frustration with Berlin’s costly bailouts of Greece and other bankrupt EU states, the AfD takes its name from one of Merkel’s less popular aphorisms, when she repeatedly stated Germany had “no alternative” but to financially bail out Southern Europe from its insolvency.

This was far from popular with many Germans, a notoriously frugal bunch that loathes debt; as late as 2011, only one-third of Germans had a credit card, and most personal transactions are still in cash. Merkel then made things worse by opening Germany’s doors to migrants in 2015, which made her deeply unpopular with many working-class Germans. The arrival of two million migrants in 2015 – relative to population, this would be like the United States taking in eight million migrants in 12 months – has caused serious political heartache in certain quarters.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Two Decades Later, Algeria Protects Mystery of Bentalha Massacre

Twenty years ago tonight, around sunset, masked gunmen approached the village of Bentalha, on the outskirts of Algeria’s capital, Algiers. They infiltrated quietly, clad in black and wearing hoods to hide their identities, and proceeded to murder anyone they encountered. They used guns, knives, and machetes to butcher the unarmed, in a terrible slaughter that lasted nearly 10 hours.

By daybreak, the extent of the massacre became evident. The exact number of dead has never been agreed upon, but the best estimates place the toll of the butchered north of 400 – many of them women, children, and the elderly. Something like one-fifth of Bentalha was dead, many of the victims having been slaughtered ritualistically, even decapitated. Some of the women had been raped before being butchered, while babies had been bashed to death against walls.

The horror of the Bentalha massacre briefly captured the world’s attention – an iconic photo of a local woman discovering her family’s dead, proclaimed as “the Madonna of Bentalha,” won awards – but that soon faded. Five years into Algeria’s hideous civil war, massacres had become so commonplace that it was difficult to keep track of them. Less than a month before Bentalha, at the village of Rais, only a few miles down the road, mysterious masked butchers had murdered hundreds of civilians in a similar fashion.

While massacres of civilians grew depressingly routine in the bitter fight between the Algerian military regime and Islamist rebels, they peaked in 1997, and Bentalha was a rare example that got some attention abroad, fleetingly. In truth, Algeria’s fratricide never got much Western press outside France, with its long colonial history with the country plus a considerable Algerian diaspora. Even though the death toll of the civil war that engulfed Algeria for years beginning in 1992 claimed some 200,000 lives, most of them civilians, that bloody conflict got a mere fraction of the Western media attention showered on the concurrent Bosnian war, which killed half as many people.

In fairness to journalists, the junta in Algiers didn’t want foreigners looking closely into what was happening in the country, and when responsibility for the Bentalha massacre was claimed by the Armed Islamic Group, the notorious GIA, the blood-thirstiest jihadist gang on earth in the mid-1990s, not many Westerners were eager to dig more deeply – particularly when both sides in Algeria’s civil war didn’t care about protecting journalists asking unwanted questions.

Read the rest at The Observer…

Harvard’s Bizarre Chelsea Manning Debacle Exposes Academic Bubble

For centuries, Harvard has been our country’s most prestigious university, while its rather newer John F. Kennedy School of Government serves as mecca for graduate students seeking entry to the elite halls of power – especially in Washington, D.C. The K-School, as it’s known to Cambridge cognoscenti, also provides sinecures for veteran pols and Beltway hangers-on, who are ideal faculty to teach the ways of American governance to the rising generation.

The K-School doles out fellowships as well, including to visiting fellows. These are hardly more than honorifics, not actual jobs, yet they are undeniably prestigious. They are also a way for  Harvard to remain au courant with trendy issues of the day. However, an unusual firestorm erupted last week when the K-School announced its new crop of visiting fellows – roughly ten are selected annually – and the list included Chelsea Manning.

Manning – then Bradley — became a celebrity of sorts back in 2010 as an Army private who, while serving in Iraq, stole some 750,000 classified documents and passed them to WikiLeaks. In so doing, Manning became an icon to anti-American activists everywhere, yet Washington was far from amused.

The lion’s share of what Manning purloined and WikiLeaks revealed to the world consisted of State Department cable traffic – which isn’t highly classified yet is enormously sensitive. This represents the nuts-and-bolts of diplomacy – conversations between Foggy Bottom and our embassies worldwide about what foreign emissaries say to them, and vice versa – and it’s kept secret with good reason. Foreigners speak frankly to our diplomats because they expect, reasonably, that those conversations will remain private. Manning blew all that up.

The cost to American power and prestige that followed was difficult to enumerate yet very real. Our friends, allies, and interlocutors, witnessing WikiLeaks dump their secret chats with Washington online, understandably wondered if America could keep secrets any longer. This was a humiliating experience, especially for the nation’s top diplomat at the time, Hillary Clinton.

She took the Manning case personally – who, in Hillary’s shoes, would not? – and wanted justice to be served. The Defense Department and our Intelligence Community were equally livid about Manning, since plenty of their secrets were embedded in the vast trove of stolen files which Manning gave to Julian Assange. Although the Pentagon’s official public assessment is that these revelations cost no lives, that is widely considered to be a pleasant fiction in intelligence circles. Unquestionably the personal information that WikiLeaks dumped online, care of Manning, endangered foreigners who were working for the American government.

Read the rest at The Observer …